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"The ASEAN Way on the South China Sea Speaks Volumes" by Tang Siew Mun

2018/51, 7 May 2018

ASEAN continues to face criticism from outside the region for being “soft” on the South China Sea issue. ASEAN official statements, including the Chairman’s Statement of the recently concluded 32nd ASEAN Summit have been singled out as “subdued,” “watered down” and “failing to rise to the occasion.” However, once the hyperbole and media soundbites were separated from the substantive discourse, ASEAN’s deft handling of this sensitive issue becomes evident.

For starters, ASEAN has consistently maintained a principled approach on the South China Sea, which is predicated on six key tenets: (a) not taking sides on the merits of the disputes, (b) peaceful resolution of the disputes, (c) respect for and adherence to international law, (d) safeguarding the freedom of navigation and overflight, (e) maintenance of peace and security; and (f) self-restraint and non-militarisation. While the language and tone of the ASEAN Chairman Statements and Joint Communiques may differ occasionally subject to the contextual circumstances, these tenets continue to guide and inform ASEAN’s approach on the South China Sea. Singapore Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong, speaking as the ASEAN Chair at the post-Summit press conference, noted that “it is significant that the language [on the South China Sea] stands and has not been modified.” This is an important clarification.

The ASEAN Leaders also affirmed these six tenets at the 32nd ASEAN Summit, and in addition, noted “the concerns expressed by some Leaders on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” In this respect, the Chairman’s Statement of the 32nd ASEAN Summit was more forward than the Chairman’s Statement of the 31st ASEAN Summit last year in reflecting concerns on land reclamation, and in connecting this development to the region’s peace, security and stability.

Similarly, ASEAN has continued to reiterate its views on Arbitral Tribunal’s 12 July 2016 award on the Philippines vs China case on the South China Sea. While ASEAN does not take a position on the outcome of the legal proceedings, it supports legal processes that are consistent with its operating principle of respect for and adherence to international law and the peaceful resolution of the disputes. The phrase “full respect for diplomatic and legal processes, without resorting to the threat and use of force, in accordance to the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)” has been accepted as “standard ASEAN language” since 2016 and is widely acknowledged within and outside ASEAN circles as the “linguistic proxy” for the Arbitral Tribunal.

The leaked zero draft of the 32nd ASEAN Summit Chairman’s Statement has generated quite a bit of excitement among ASEAN watchers in offering a rare glimpse into the world of document drafting. Some commentators have registered their disappointment in an outcome they considered to be “watered-down.” However, comparing the zero draft with the final outcome is like comparing apples and oranges. The more appropriate yardstick is to compare the latest statement with the most recent statements, which we have highlighted earlier in this commentary. The 32nd ASEAN Summit Chairman’s Statement presented a realistic reading of current developments in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, the progression of the document from its draft form to the Chairman’s Statement shows the merit and strength of the ASEAN way of consensus building. Every member state brings their preliminary interventions – which are often their highest preferred positions – to the negotiating table knowing full well that “give and take” is the order of the day. What outsiders consider as “watering down” is actually the moderating effect of consensus to find the middle ground. Far from being a weakness, the consensus approach to define ASEAN’s position which has stood the test of time ensures that all views are taken into account to serve the regional and collective interest while affirming ASEAN’s resilience. The consolidated South China Sea paragraph in the final outcome document exemplifies the true sense of ASEAN-ness in respecting each other’s views and upholding the spirit of compromise, while holding on to ASEAN’s principled position.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.